This Day in History (14-Feb-1876) – Alexander Graham Bell and Elisha Gray Apply for Patents on the Telephone

More than three decades after the idea of a telephone was first considered by Innocenzo Manzetti, two Americans rushed to the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) on February 14, 1876 to claim credit for the world-changing invention. On this day, Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone patent application entitled “Improvement in Telegraphy” was filed at the USPTO by Bell’s attorney Marcellus Bailey; Elisha Gray’s attorney filed a caveat for a telephone just a few hours later entitled “Transmitting Vocal Sounds Telegraphically”. A patent caveat was a type of preliminary application for a patent that gave an inventor an additional ninety days grace to file a regular patent application. The caveat would prevent anyone else that filed an application on the same or similar invention from having their application processed for ninety days, while the caveat holder was given an opportunity to file a full patent application first.

Alexander Graham Bell was the fifth entry of that day, while Elisha Gray was 39th. On the basis of its earlier filing time — a mere few hours — and on the subtle distinctions between a caveat and an actual patent application, the U.S. Patent Office awarded Alexander Bell, not Elisha Gray, the patent for the telephone. In March 1877, Bell wrote to Gray that he had knowledge of the competing design. Filings at the USPTO were deemed confidential until testing was complete, meaning Bell must have secured his knowledge illegally. In 1878, lengthy patent litigation involving the Bell Telephone Company against Western Union Telegraph Company and Elisha Gray began. Year later, Bell said during a court proceeding he talked “in a general way” with a patent examiner about Gray’s design, which allowed him to learn it “had something to do with the vibration of a wire in water.”

Elisha Gray, though missed telephone patent, was granted over seventy patents for his inventions, including many important innovations in electricity. In 1872, Gray founded the Western Electric Manufacturing Company, the great-grandparent of todays Lucent Technologies.